Last reviewed 19 February 2021

Large quantities of microplastics have mysteriously washed up on a number of north-west beaches over the last three months, posing a threat to local wildlife.

According to Cumbria Wildlife Trust, last week’s “microplastic spill” on Walney beach is the third in an unexplained series of pollution incidents on beaches.

First sightings of microplastics waste were on the Lancashire Fylde Coast in the middle of January, which later spread along the coastline and across to Cumbria.

“We have now received reports of significant amounts of microplastic washing up as far north as St Bees beach on the west coast of Cumbria, some 60 miles north of the first sightings in Lancashire,” Cumbria Wildlife Trust said.

Microplastics are minute pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5mm. They do not biodegrade and can accumulate in living organisms like fish and other animals that may consequently be consumed by humans.

Dr Emily Baxter, Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Marine Conservation Officer, explained how these spills pose a threat to local ecologies:

“This kind of plastic pollution incident could have a serious impact on our wildlife, the ingestion of microplastics can really affect the whole foodweb and enter the human food chain.

“In addition, microplastics carry chemicals and toxins - often from manufacturing or processing - that can then be transferred into the environment and throughout the foodweb to other animals and humans.”

The Environment Agency, United Utilities and Natural England are working with local councils and River Trust to collect and analyse the samples to find out where the mystery microplastics may have originated.

Cumbria Wildlife Trust has called on residents to report any sightings to help scientists model the scope of these spills and the reasons behind them.

For now, the origins of the waste microplastics washed up on the north west coastline remains a mystery.